Recently, the world has been absolutely awash in amazing video games from Japanese developers across a magnitude of different genres. The windfall of fantastic games, seemingly starting with late 2016’s Final Fantasy XV and spanning titles like Nier: Automata, Nioh, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Persona 5 have been keeping our thumbs twitching. As a result, I’ve been hearing it all to often: “Japan is back. Japanese developers have found their magic touch once more.”
I don't really buy into the sentiment, which honestly seems to assume a bit too much.
In my eyes, the world of Japanese video games never actually lost its lustre; to the rest of the world, it simply fell out of focus as other trends and business decisions emerged from western markets and publishers. Remaining hyper-focused on the content we loved, myself and many other gamers found plenty to love from those same studios and talent who gave us some of our most fantastical experiences along the way. There was even room for new and unconventional games from young and budding talent.
Imagine my sheer excitement then, if you will, when I discovered BitSummit - an annual showcase of some of the best games not only from Japan's own underground scene, but also from creative minds the world over who hope to spread their own concepts of fun across international barriers. From university students building their very first virtual reality games to industry veterans who have decided to chart their own paths with new production studios, BitSummit is a microcosm that allows the freshest ideas from one of our favorite hobbies to flourish and grow.
This year's event, officially known as "A 5th of BitSummit," was held in Kyoto, Japan, at the Miyako Messe exhibition hall on Saturday, May 20 and Sunday, May 21. Organized by a host of big industry players alongside some individuals passionate about indie gaming, BitSummit is proud to be one of the largest independent games events in Japan, with 6435 attendees in 2016 alone. Throughout this years event, I was fortunate enough to get hands-on time with 10 games in total. Bridging various genres and niched ideas, we're going to take a look at just what defined my BitSummit weekend:
People Panic was a game that would be extremely hard to miss as you entered the exhibit hall. As opposed to the gentle glow of all the TV screens and computer monitors dotting the dimly-lit hall, this light appeared to be popping out of the floor. As I approached to take a closer look, I was handed a long fishing rod-type pole, and noticed what appeared to be a classic flying saucer UFO hanging off the end.
The goal of the game is to work with your teammates to abduct as many people, animals, and eventually objects as possible. Of course, as the image is not actually coming from the floor, an overhead projector works in tandem with the UFOs to determine where they are located on the playing field, thus allowing you to abduct anything below your own UFO. After 2 minutes or so of sucking up us much of the map as possible, everyone receives the total score, and a new round begins almost immediately.
Of course, being quite an unconventional installation for a video game, it will be interesting to see how developer Coconoe brings the game to a wider audience.
Official Site: 9ye.jp
Strange Telephone was, stylistically, one of my favorite games at the show. From the snap I captured above you can see main character Jill standing in front of this ominous looking door. As it would turn out, Jill is now trapped in this dark and mysterious world, and the only way to get out is to rely on her mysterious floating pal named Graham. Graham resembles a telephone, and Jill must use the hovering horn to dial up one a plethora of worlds via 6-digit numbers.
It's a beautiful point-and-click adventure in a pixel art style, complete with retro scanlines and all. As you navigate the worlds, there are also a number of items that you can pick up to help you along the way. These include a lantern which light up those darker worlds, and a hatchet letting you cut through obstacles. I chatted with game's developer, Yuta, about his concept:
Strange Telephone is a big game with 5 endings. In order to get them all, I encourage players to share their world numbers with friends to help them out. In this way, it is also a sort of social game, but you have to find a way to do this outside of the app.
Strange Telephone is available now on both Android and iOS devices, in both Japanese and English. Also on display at the booth was a PC version, which is planned for release later this year.
Official Site: magniflop.com
Samurai Inferno Castle
Now this one was just oozing with style and fresh ideas. The best way to describe Samurai Inferno Castle would have to be a blend between classic Japanese "yanki" biker gangs and Fire Emblem. On their turn, players are able to move their characters on gridded maps, and can chose from the standard options such as "Attack," "Item," and "Wait." The action is a fair bit more fast-paced than your typical SRPG, and taking down huge bosses requires you to be more inventive than approaching the enemy square and pressing "Attack."
In the demo, I found myself facing a gigantic demon with two oversized arms. It was only after you incapacitated the arms that its head would emerge from behind the castle roof. In order to have myself in an advantageous position to strike the head, I had to move about placing bombs to damage the arms. If the rest of the game has you thinking on your feet in a similar style, I sense a real winner on our hands. Oh, and did I also mention there's an insanely fun multiplayer mode?
Official Site: Kyoto x Unity
Rising Arch: Raika kawaseshi shiren no tou
Rising Arch is part-action, part-puzzle, and complete-fun. The game has two options when it comes to input; you can either take advantage of a touch screen monitor, or you can opt for a more traditional mouse and click scheme. It's clear which method the developers had in mind for the game however, as you are tasked with ascending a tower full of puzzles by hovering at precise points in midair, all while taking aim with your oversized magic bow to shoot down enemies. Tap once to warp, hold your finger to hover, and drag your finger back to aim and shoot your bow; easy. Just don't let go in the wrong spots, or else you may find yourself falling onto the spikes below.
Featuring a host of characters, gorgeous pixel graphics and screen-engulfing effects, Rising Arch is sure to please fans of great 2D romps. The developers were selling special BitSummit emblazoned cards with download codes for trial versions of the game, and they detailed that the full version of the game is due out by year's end. I would urge you to keep an eye on their site and Twitter page for more info.
Official Site: Banraku-Hatenkou
va-ll hall-a (PlayStation Vita Version)
va-ll hall-a, while perhaps not a new game for many, is receiving an official release in Japan complete with translation. So of course the indie darling should have a presence at Japan's biggest indie games show, right? Oh, and what's this? A PlayStation Vita release too? Sign me up! I played a good portion of their demo, and the game is just as sharply-written and witty in Japanese as it is English.
Haven't given it a try yet? If you are a fan of incredibly detailed pixel graphics, brilliant writing and a general cyberpunk aesthetic, this game will be right up your alley. Oh, and props to the team for blaring the game's OST throughout the exhibition hall over a killer retro boombox.
Official Site: Sukeban Games
Save Me Mr. Tako!
Did someone put a Game Boy on the big screen? You wouldn't be faulted for thinking so as you walked past this booth, as that's just the feeling that developer Christophe Galati wishes to evoke. Save Me Mr. Tako puts you in the tentacle-filled shoes of a little octopus soldier. Yes, these octopi are at war - with humans! The beginning of the demo had you attacking a human ship in the middle of a storm. One of the passengers of the ship falls into the sea, and through a cutscene your octopus jumps in after to save her. From here, the story unfolds as you guide the little rebel through some retro-inspired, hybrid platformer and RPG action.
One of the best parts of the whole experience? You can swap the game's color palette on the fly with the press of a button, just as if you were playing an original Game Boy game on a Game Boy Advance, but with just a few more options.
Save Me Mr. Tako will be available soon, with PC and WiiU releases planned.
Official IndieDB Page: Save Me Mr. Tako
Battle Sports Mekuru
Perhaps even more joyous than playing the game itself was the official Battle Sports Mekuru tournament that BitSummit held on the main stage. With a brand-new Nintendo Switch up for grabs, teams of event ticket holders duked it out against some pretty big-name industry veterans. Featuring a star-studded lineup including Castlevania's own Koji Igarashi, it was hard not to root for the gamers from the audience who were competing against them.
Battle Sports Mekuru is a Nintendo Switch-exclusive title developed by new Japanese studio Over Fence. The goal of the game is to run around a grid-like board, ground pounding the tiles to claim them as your own. With each pound, you flip a number of tiles in a cross-shaped pattern extending in all directions. Power-ups that you collect can have an effect on how many tiles you flip, and the pattern in which they flip as well. As you can imagine, this all makes for some pretty hectic action, and is the perfect game for a party-like setting.
Just as many of BitSummit's presentations and stage events were streamed over Twitch, so too was the tournament. Players young and old, industry vets and gaming newcomers alike made this game a blast to watch, and it was even more enjoyable to try it out myself. It's currently available on the Japanese Nintendo Switch eShop, and I'm sure a worldwide release isn't too far off.
Official Site: Battle Sports Mekuru
Momodora V (Working Title)
The game Momodora V may not see a final release under that same name, but what I played of it was a genuinely eye-catching example of stylized 3D action in it's purest form.
Originally introduced as a direct sequel to the first four titles in the series, it quickly branched off instilling a series-first 3D approach to a once pixelated series. As I guided my character through a serene castle environment, I was met with tight controls and physics perhaps similar to an entry into the Dark Souls series. If anything says successful leap into 3D gaming, my guess is that would be a pretty good indicator.
Since the game was revealed at the event, the developer has expressed intention in proceeding with this project separate from the Momodora series itself.
Official Website: Bombservice
God Breath You
As we've already seen with titles like People Panic, BitSummit, as well as indie games scene itself is definitely not afraid to venture outside the realm of the usual with their games. God Breath You is a prime example of a game that can be just as fun, if not even more so, without any traditional input device like a controller.
There are two aspects to the game: one player dons a VR helmet and finds themselves on a boat, while up to 4 other players squeeze little syringes attached to mini Roman-style busts in order to blow gusts of air at a small wooden model of aforementioned boat with a sensor attached to it. The player on the boat is essentially the captain, and must shout out directions such as "Left," Right," and Straight Ahead" in order to get the wind gods to steer the boat to safety. It was tons of fun, and I cannot wait to see what the team at 1->10drive bring to the table next.
Official Developer Site: 1->10drive
God of Money
As I walked past this booth, it was admittedly not the game or the VR helmet that attracted me. Rather, it was a person standing nearby. That person just happened to be acclaimed developer of cult hit Deadly Premonition and D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die Swery65, or Mr. Hidetaka Suehiro. Of course, I just had to approach him for a chat, and during the course of our conversation I became insanely curious about this game he appeared to be monitoring. As it would turn out, it wasn't exactly his game per se, but he did have a hand in it.
Thus, at the urging of Swery65, I was prompted to try out my very first (believe it or not) full VR game. God of Money is a project created by students at Osaka Electro-Communication University under Swery65's mentoring. He told me that VR was a prime space for young developers to bring their innovative ideas to fruition.
After the Occulus Rift helmet was carefully attached to my head, the developers handed me the Occulus controllers, and explained the rules of the game. I only needed to grip one button, and it was as simple as throwing anything I might choose to toss in the real world. As a benevolent God of Wealth, you simply need to toss wads of cash to the masses scrambling about your perch. The physics were spot on, and I walked away a believer in our VR future.
The next generation of creators are clearly in good hands.
Official Facebook Page: VR Media Research Project
You would honestly believe that a new title by the acclaimed studio Game Freak, the very same developers behind the best-selling Pokémon games, would be headline news, right? Well apparently I've either been under a rock, or this just slipped under everyones radar, as I was completely unaware of their latest title Giga Wrecker prior to BitSummit, which has been available in Japan since February 6, 2017.
If there's anything I walked away knowing, it's that you need to head over to Steam pronto and pick up this gem, which just recently released with English-language support. Featuring a gorgeous art style reflective of the game's gritty nature, Giga Wrecker is described as a "debris action" game. The moniker totally fits, as it was a total blast to maneuver around the world, throwing junk around at will and bashing enemies with impromptu swords, spears and drills.
Official Site: Giga Wrecker
And so much more...
Even though I dedicated almost an entire weekend at BitSummit, playing far more games than I could have at larger events such as E3 or Tokyo Game Show, I earnestly feel like I barely even scratched the surface. While there were some familiar faces from larger events such as Nintendo and PlayStation, this was very much a show for the little guys. But the presence of those larger companies undeniably shows their dedication to the scene, and that's always a good thing.
Attached below is a series of photos from the showroom floor including the aforementioned booths from Nintendo and PlayStation:
If you are interested in BitSummit and any future events that may be held, be sure to keep an eye on their official website here.